The Hollywood Paradox – Controled by the Jews but feeling them


“How deeply Jewish is Hollywood?” asked Joel Stein, a Jewish Hollywood producer, in a piece for the Los Angeles Times in late 2008. Stein answers by recounting that when the studio heads took out a full page ad from the paper demanding that the Screen Actors Guild settle their contract negotiations, the signatures on the open letter read: “News Corp. President Peter Chernin (Jewish), Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey (Jewish), Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger (Jewish), Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton (surprise, Dutch Jew), Warner Bros. Chairman Barry Meyer (Jewish), CBS Corp. Chief Executive Leslie Moonves (so Jewish his great uncle was the first prime minister of Israel), MGM Chairman Harry Sloan (Jewish) and NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker (megaJewish). If either of the Weinstein brothers had signed, this group would not only have had the power to shut down all film production but to form a minyan with enough Fiji water on hand to fill a mikvah.”

Surprisingly, despite the extensive Jewish presence in front of and behind the camera at the major Hollywood studios, and despite their ability to impact the subject matter and ideological messages of movies, only a tiny minority of Hollywood films from the earliest days of the industry until today have dealt directly and clearly with Jews, Judaism, Jewish-non-Jewish relations, ultraOrthodox-secular relations, Israel and the relationship between US Jews and Israel. Although Hollywood has made a few hundred movies dealing with Jewish issues, that is a drop in the bucket compared to the tens of thousands of productions made in the hundred years of the film industry in the City of Angels. The few movies that center on Jewish characters are generally limited to romantic comedies and family dramas, with relative paucity of Jewish characters in “male” genres like thrillers, horror films, action movies, adventure movies, fantasy and science fiction.

Although tens of millions of Americans of color such as Hispanics, Asians, Indians and Arabs, are all even more underrepresented in film and television than Jews, and even the number of Hollywood productions dealing with the African-American situation is far smaller than the percentage of blacks in American society, none of these ethnic groups have ever been considered the landlords of the major studios. As strong as the myth of Jewish control of Hollywood was for nearly a century – at least until new players like electronics corporations and Japanese entertainment conglomerates like Sony came onto the scene – it was never really expressed in the movies as produced by “Jewish Hollywood.”

Opinion polls show that in 2008 just 22 percent of Americans believed that Jews controlled the movie industry and popular culture in the US – compared to no less than half of Americans who held that belief in the 1960s – but like most modern myths, the myth of Jewish control of American media and culture does hold a kernel of truth. The historical truth is that the founders of the Hollywood film industry were Jewish merchants and businessmen from New York and New Jersey who were tired of aggressive cinema tycoon Thomas Alva Edison’s grip on the East Coast cinema market and sought refuge from the rampant anti-Semitism they ncountered both inside and outside the film industry.

A Christmas menorah

In the first decades of the 20th century, the Jewish Warner, Meyer, Laemmle and Goldstein families decided to head west, to the Los Angeles orange orchards, where they established the dream industry. For instance, Warner Brothers Studio was founded in 1923 by siblings Jack, Albert, Harry and Sam. Twenty years later, the family could afford to buy out Leon Schlesinger’s animation company, and graphic pigs took up arms against dogs. Warner’s Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird and the unkosher Porky the Pig quickly gave serious competition to Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy the Dog, Walt Disney’s cash cows. Non-Jewish neighbor Disney was known not to particularly care for Jews, even joining an American pro-Nazi organization in the 1930’s and entertaining openly pro-Hitler director Leni Riefenstahl in his home.

Nonetheless, despite the relatively small number of outright Jewish movies, the Hollywood studios provided the world with several important and influential cinematic works starring Jewish-identified characters such as the first “talkie,” 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. At the time of its release, American Jews were very concerned with leaving their inner city ghettos and with their and their children’s integration, sometimes even assimilation, into the modern Christian society in the green suburbs. In the spirit of the times, “The Jazz Singer” tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor, torn between his promise to his ailing father to lead Kol Nidre services at the synagogue on Yom Kippur eve, and his budding career as a rising star on the Broadway stage. When Jakie keeps his promise, his parents see him as a real Jew. The next day, the elderly father passes away and the mourning son, who knows that on Broadway the show must go on, takes to the musical stage and garners great success, illustrating American Jewry’s dream of a “Christmas menorah,” the best of both worlds.

Efforts to fit in the Anglo-Saxon culture along with maintaining Yiddish as a mother tongue and the Yiddishkeit culture of the mass Eastern European Jewish immigration, are not only evident in the huge success of “The Jazz Singer” (which studios tried to recapture with 1952 and 1980 remakes), but also in the rise and fall of Yiddish cinema in America. In 1936, the Polish-American production of “Yiddle with his Fiddle” hit the screens, starring Molly Picon, a Polish superstar in Yiddish theater and films who appeared in Yiddle as a drag king, predating Barbra Streisand’s turn as Yentl by more than forty years. While Itke dressed up as Yiddle to become a musician, Yentl takes on the male identity of Anshel in order to become a yeshiva student and get an education.

Hollywood tries to save the Jews of Auschwitz

The next generation after the Jewish immigrants was eager to blend into the American dream but encountered no small amount of antiSemitism. For several decades, Hollywood’s Jews preferred to play down the anti-Semitism, and dealt with it directly in very few movies, possibly believing that if they didn’t talk about the phenomenon it would disappear or at least not grow.

Ironically, Darryl Zanuck, a non-Jewish producer who left Warner Brothers in 1933, decided to make the movie “The House of Rothschild,” a biography of the wealthy Rothschild starring the first British Oscar winner George Arliss as Mayer Rothschild. At the time, a movie about a Jewish banking dynasty was the last thing Hollywood’s Jews hoped to see. Zanuck and Arliss tried to show the world the persecuted Jew, to engender sympathy and fight the rise of Nazism. In contrast, the Nazis used that very movie to show how Jews damaged the economy and commerce and a scene from the movie – with a “we couldn’t make it up” atmosphere – was inserted unedited into a Nazi propaganda film, Fritz Hippler’s “Der Ewige Jude,” irrefutable validation of Jewish concerns about discussing themselves and their identity on the big screen. Despite these concerns regarding open discussion of anti-Semitism, the captains of Hollywood decided to use their power to help their brethren during World War II. Warner Brothers, for instance, made the first anti-Nazi movie in 1939, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy.” In efforts to raise awareness of the Holocaust of Europe’s Jews and encourage American military intervention, the Jews even enlisted a few non-Jewish allies. The most famous is Charlie Chaplin, who directed and starred in “The Great Dictator” (1940), a biting satire on Nazism and totalitarian regimes. Chaplin, who felt great empathy with the fate of the Jewish people, produced the movie out of his own pocket at his eponymous production company, brilliantly playing two roles: the great dictator Hynkel, a dead ringer for Hitler himself, and a Jewish barber trying to escape the Germans’ grasp.

Despite information reaching American authorities regarding death camps, the US was not anxious to enter a military operation thousands of miles from home. Desperate to influence government policy and help the Russians and the British defeat the Nazis and save the Jewish people, in 1942 the Warner brothers produced the masterpiece “Casablanca,” helmed by Michael Curtiz, the love story between nightclub owner Rick (Humphrey Bogart) in Vichy-ruled Casablanca and Jewish 107 refugee Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman). The literal meaning of the name of the movie is “The White House” and the Warner brothers hoped to raise awareness in Washington DC of life under German occupation and the Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives, hoping to push the Us into an invasion of Europe and a clash with the Nazis, which they were delaying – critical dawdling which cost the lives of millions of Jews who perished in concentration camps. With Elia Kazan’s 1947 “Gentleman’s Agreement,” again produced by Zanuck of “House of Rothschild” fame, just two years after the conclusion of World War II, there were again concerns that the cinematic handling of the persecution of the Jews would produce another wave of hatred toward Jews, this time in the US. Hero Philip Green (played by Gregory Peck) was a promising reporter who arrived in New York and was given the assignment of preparing a series of articles about anti-Semitism. In order to find out what Christian Americans really thought of Jews, Green disguises himself as a Jew for six months and proves that reporters, secretaries, hotel managers and police desk clerks all have prejudices. Kazan, who won an Oscar for the movie, was himself prejudiced against the leftwing, as evident in his enthusiastic cooperation with McCarthyism and his eager informing on colleagues with socialist tendencies.

Hollywood presents: The Good Jew, The Bad Arab

The major Hollywood studios did little that touched directly on the biggest trauma of the Jewish people. And if they did in fact touch on the Holocaust, it wasn’t the event itself, but its shroud. One prominent example was Otto Preminger’s 1960 “Exodus”, about the infamous illegal immigration ship. The movie in fact emphasized the immigrants’ terrible experience on the ship and the horrifying decision by British Mandatory authorities to return the refugees to Germany, but mostly “Exodus” praises and enhances the new Jewish man, the smooth, tanned and half-naked Canaanite lion, starring the hypnotic young and blueeyed Paul Newman, the symbol of the idealist and sexy Zionist settlement living in idyllic harmony with the Arabs. Pro-Jewish movies like “Exodus” drew tremendous criticism. “Jews are portrayed as high-minded, sensitive, idealistic, resourceful and courageous. The British are shown as cynical and rather ignorant. And the Palestinian Arabs, insofar as they are depicted at all, are portrayed as treacherous, cruel and murderous,” wrote author and historian Mark Webber in a 2012 article in which he accused the Jewish regime in Hollywood “for” an entire generation of Americans, including myself as a youth, along with millions in other countries, the ‘Exodus’ film was perhaps the single most important factor in shaping our view of Zionism and the Palestine-Israel conflict.”

The next prominent movie dealing with anti-Semitism was Sidney Lumet’s 1964 “The Pawnbroker,” which told the story of Sol Nazerman, an embittered Holocaust survivor and owner of a Harlem pawnshop, murdered during a robbery. While the author of the book on which the screenplay was based – Edward Lewis Wallant – emphasized Nazerman’s close relationship with his mute Hispanic assistant Jesus Ortiz in an effort to spotlight the inherent homophobia in American society, Hollywood preferred to focus on hatred of Jews, mostly because as loaded as the topic was at the time, it was still less provocative than LGBTQ rights. Sensitivity was especially necessary in one of Hollywood’s more surprising forays into anti-Semitism, this time in the form of selfhatred among Jews. In the 2001 film “The Believer,” based loosely on the true story of Daniel Burros who joined the American Nazi Party, the young Danny becomes estranged from his Judaism, joins neo-Nazi activities and becomes a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Listening to the chilling recollections of Holocaust survivors, Danny identifies both with the Jews and with the Nazis. Eventually, Danny and his cohorts plant a bomb in a synagogue but Danny suffers bouts of regrets and warns the worshippers of the attack, himself dying in the explosion, in a kind of modern telling of the binding of Isaac.

In contrast to several successful European Holocaust films such as 1997’s problematic “Life is Beautiful” in which Roberto Benigni preferred to assuage guilty Italian consciences by softening the horrors the Jews experienced – the 1993 “Schindler’s List,” among Steven Spielberg’s best work, focused on German businessman Oskar Schindler and his efforts to save Jews from the grasp of destruction, did not spare viewers the sight of the prisoners choking as the gas taps were opened and honestly portrayed the despicable behavior of the Germans to the Jews during that time, just a few decades before the outbreak of amnesia and the throng of Israeli immigrants to Berlin.

Unlike the honest and humane– and very rare in Hollywood – manner in which Spielberg handled the Holocaust, Quentin Tarantino’s violent and childish cinema dealt with the Holocaust by turning it into a Western in 2009’s “Inglorious Basterds.” After 15 exemplary minutes of gut wrenching dialogue between a French villager hiding Jewish women under the floorboards and the Jew-hunting colonel Landa, the movie becomes a ridiculous version of Karl May’s colonialist stories of the Wild West. Brad Pitt leads a band of Jewish-American fighters who take on the characteristics of a tribe of Indians avenging against the Aryan race using ISIS-style scalping and carving swastikas into the foreheads of prisoners. Tarentino and other inglorious basterds of his ilk manage with a crude and shallow “shoot ‘em up” approach to dwarf the Holocaust into pulp fiction. Further evidence of how problematic it is to be Jewish or at least Jewish in Hollywood comes in another tidbit from Weber’s article, in which he argues this is “glorifying Jewish terrorists.”

At a cinema near you: Tiny, Just Israel

Despite the Jewish presence in Hollywood and many producers’ affections for the Zionist entity, only a few dozen Hollywood movies deal with Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of those, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus’ Cannon Films productions standout, glorifying the myth of the new Jewish man, a fantastic hybrid of Samson, Judah the Maccabee, Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan and Superman (created by Jewish nerd duo Jerry Siegl and Joe Shuster). Among Golan and Globus’ works you will find the ridiculously campy 1986 “Hell Squad” in which a group of Vegas-style showgirls in short-shorts takeout terrorists; that year’s “Delta Force” starring Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin, focused on Palestinian terrorists who hijack an airplane and torture its Jewish passengers; in 1987’s “Death before Dishonor,” Palestinian terrorists slaughter an Israeli family and torture US Marines.

A more critical view of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, espionage agency Mossad’s activities and Israeli machismo, are considered far rarer in Hollywood portrayals. It is evident in the 1984 movie version of John le Carre’s “Little Drummer Girl” in which a pro-Palestinian American actress is recruited by the Mossad to trap a Palestinian suicide bomber, and in Spielberg’s 2005 “Munich” on the Mossad agents who took out the murderers of the 11 Israeli Olympic athletes killed in Munich during the 1972 Games, a thriller combining violence with mysticism and thoughts on contemporary Jewish identity. In contrast, 2008’s “Don’t Mess with Zohan” offers slapstick satire packed with stereotypes as Adam Sandler, in the role of Zohan, a superhuman Mossad assassin on the heels of Fatoush “the Phantom” Hakbarah. Zohan has an impressive show of manhood packed into tight jeans, a goatee, an Israeli-Yiddish accent and a dream to become a hairdresser that comes true after he falls in love with a beautiful Palestinian woman living in New York. In a rarity, “Don’t Mess with Zohan” also shows Sephardic Jews – not just Ashkenazi Jews – mostly as former Israelis and cunning electronics merchants in present-day New York, an unflattering role but an upgrade of the typical roles for Israeli actors with Eastern backgrounds in Hollywood as terrorists.

Hollywood’s dealings with Israel and the situation in the Middle East, both sympathetic and critical, amount to a few dozen films of the thousands produced by the industry. In a conversation with “liberal,” Professor Moshe Zuckerman, of Tel Aviv University’s Cohen Institute of the History and Philosophy of Science offers two possible explanations. “On the one hand, it is possible that the selfcensorship of the partially-Jewish Hollywood establishment seeks to avoid providing the ‘goyim’ with ammunition, especially as it becomes clear that Israeli policy and the occupation make it impossible to sell the world an “Exodus-style” tiny and just Israel, which even the pro-Israel Jews have realized,” Zuckerman claims. “On the other hand, and I think relevant to this context, Israel is no longer a projection and point of reference for US Jewry as it was after the 1967 war. What Israel was then for US Jewry has been replaced by the Holocaust, and not only in Hollywood. It is no coincidence that the biggest and most important Holocaust museums – other than Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – were founded on a continent that had no connection to the Holocaust.”

The Everyday Problems of the New Jew

In contrast to the cinematic portrayals of the secular “new Jew” in general and the Israeli in particular, American ultra-Orhtodox Jewsare usually seen by Hollywood as a sort of mystic cult rich in folklore and archaic customs detached from modern Western culture, almost as exotic as the Amish revealed by 1985’s film“The Witness” starring Harrison Ford. While 1981’s “The Chosen” tries to describe fairly the cross-cultural meeting between ultra-Orthodox and secular teens in Brooklyn, or the 1992 drama “Stranger among us” which tries to present the story of those who are “different,” most portrayals of the ultra-Orthodox in American films are parody, such as in the slapstick “The Frisco Kid” about a Polish rabbi played by Gene Wilder wearing traditional garb as he crosses the wilderness on his way to take up a pulpit in San Francisco. On the way, the rabbi clashes with angry Native Americans and white outlaws. The largely-folkloric treatment of the ultra-Orthodox experiences is also evident in the musical “Yentl” and in 1990’s “Naked Tango,” which portrays the ultra-Orthodox as a repugnant group of pimps who tang with their prostitutes in the puddles of blood on slaughterhouse floors in Buenos Aires.

More moderate, if still problematic, portrayals of Orthodox Jews appear in the animated series “The Simpsons,” such as Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky and his much-mocked son Crusty the Clown, who throws himself a decades-late bar mitzvah. In a 2010 episode, when the simpson family visits Jerusalem, it includes a satire of the ultra-Orthodox as well as secular Israelis when their cynical, macho tour guide Yaakov – voiced by Sacha Baron Cohen – curses and spews anti-Christian hatred in a heavy Israeli accent. Not just the Simpsons’ Springfield, but also Southpark’s Kyle Broflovski deals with anti-Semitism, trying desperately to fit in with the crowd despite his traditional Yiddishy parents.    However, Hollywood with the fringes of Judaism is really just a drop in the ocean. Mainstream cinema’s portrayals of Jews centers on Reform Jews, the overwhelming majority of American Jewry today. Beyond all-American or universal themes like growing up, sex, romance, family and career, these movies also touch on problems of Jewish identity, integration into general American society, ethnicity and return to roots in contrast to mixed-marriage and inter-cultural assimilation into permissive Western society. As the Holocaust faded in the distance, the tsuris (troubles) of the Jewish movie character became more “normal.” This was aided by the Diaspora Jews’ psychological drive to fit in, as explained by movie critic and author Neal Gabler in his cinematic history book “An Empire of their own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” first from being an immigrant that had had enough of the feeling of being “other” in Eastern Europe, then out of fear of anti-Semitism, and finally out of the desire to fit into the American mainstream, fulfill the American dream and become “more American than the Americans.” The day-today of those Jews who invented Hollywood, established families and led routine lives, became the center of the world instead of thinking about the Holocaust, anti-Semitism and Jewish identity. Now they felt American. And what is more American in movies than romantic comedies, coming-of-age dramas and love triangles.

In 1989, Paul Mazursky directed “Enemies, a Love Story” based on the book by Isaac Bashevis Singer (also the author of “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”), a bitter comedy about Holocaust survivor Herman Broder, entangled in a New York love triangle with three women: his wife Yadwiga, the Polish maid who hid him during the Holocaust, his lover and fellow survivor Masha, and his first wife Tamara – played by Anjelica Huston – who reappears although Broder thought had she died in the Holocaust with their two children. “I am not dead,” Tamara explains her tragedy to Yadwiga with typical Jewish humor. “I am not dead, but also not really alive. I have no expectations of him. I am sure you slept with him for me.”

A slightly more standard love triangle appears in 2000’s dramatic comedy “Keeping the Faith,” about the ever-more-complicated relationship between three young people: a priest – played by Edward Norton, a rabbi (Ben Stiller), and a shiksa or non-Jewish woman (Jenna Elfman). Jewish youth also play a role in the successful 1999 comingof-age comedy “American Pie,” a fable of the integration of the Jewish nerd – the generation to follow the 1920’s immigrants – into the hormonal American teen dream. Dr. Inbar Shaham, a professor of American cinema at the Open University of Israel, notes that “the actor Jason Biggs, who plays the Jewish hero of the series of movies, is believed by many to be Jewish in real life too, although he in fact is from a Catholic background and often jokes about the mistaken identity. “Presenting that character and its family as Jewish,” explains Shaham “includes characterizing the hero’s father – played by Jewish actor Eugene Levy – as the perfect Jewish nebech or wimp.”        However, it appears that the most successful and most controversial Hollywood movie in terms of Jewish representation of the American Jewish community is the Coen brothers’ 2009 work “A Serious Man,” which mocks the protagonist’s Jewish community. Larry Gopnik, a young university professor seeking to survive and advance in the harsh world of academia, faces a moral dilemma when a Korean student offers him a substantial bribe as our hero faces an expensive divorce. The movie engenders discomfort as it moves from legitimate parody to virtually anti-Semitic motifs in the character of the eccentric rabbi who lives in a bizarre “weirdness room” as well as in the portrayal of traditional Jewish rituals such as the expressionist bar mitzvah scene at the synagogue in which the bar mitzvah boy is high on marijuana. “A Serious Man” portrays the Jewish mother Judith as a greedy, treacherous, uncontrollable bitch who does not hesitate to bring her lover into the apartment she still shares with her husband in the throes of divorce proceedings.

The Jewish mother: from Yachnato Yenta

“The archetype of the controlling and intrusive woman appears repeatedly in folk and literature motifs throughout history and across cultures,” claims Professor Martha Ravits in groundbreaking research from the early 2000’s on the Jewish mother as comical and controversial in American popular culture. Ravits avers that the Jewish mother is essentially the heir to the blood-thirsty Lady Macbeth and the shrew Kate in Shakespeare’s plays. According to Ravits, the Jewish mother character integrates the misogyny of American and Jewish patriarchal traditions.

“Jewish humor, like much ethnic humor,” explains Ravits “stems from the weight of the double consciousness, the unresolved tension between the ethnicity and assimilation that endows the Jewish mother with spiritual conflict and strengthens the sense of ‘otherness’.” Moreover, comedy in principle rides on the edge of discomfort. “During periods of cultural change,” Ravits explains, “the stereotype of the Jewish mother is constructed to symbolize the Jews and mock their concerns about the process of Americanization.” Ravits adds that since the position of the Jewish mother has moved from the cultural margins to the center, “she can serve as a means to identify the most serious problems of cultural ambivalence for all Americans.”

The most famous and charged Hollywood work in this context is 1972’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” based on the late 60’s Philip Roth novel of the same name. The Jewish Alexander Portnoy tells his psychologist about his childhood, his erotic desires, his romantic difficulties, his fear of commitment to girlfriend Mary and mostly his difficult and complex relationship with his mother. The movie travels between his presentday therapy sessions and flashbacks over Portnoy’s lifetime. “The stereotype of the Jewish mother in popular culture refocuses on men’s discomfort,” claims Professor Ravits, “regarding the feminine drive to ‘culture’ or train the recalcitrant man and castrate him into becoming a ‘mama’s boy’.”

This unresolved complex, both Jewish and universal, has been Woody Allen’s livelihood for many years, as for instance “Oedipus Wrecks,” one of the short films woven into 1989’s “New York Stories.” In one unforgettable scene, the protagonist’s mother discovers perfume and scolds him “Sheldon, where have you been? I looked for you everywhere. In the meantime, I discussed all my problems with you with all these nice people,” pointing from the heavens to legions of anonymous New Yorkers in the crowded streets. “Do you think a person his age should get married?! They just met six months ago,” she consults the entire world, pulling photos from Sheldon’s childhood album. In response, the legions of New Yorkers watching her pull out photos of their own children from their wallets and show them off.

“A no less critical portrayal of the Jewish mother appears in the opening scene of Allen’s 1997 film “Annie Hall,” in which he  recalls his mother talking to a psychiatrist after he becomes worried that the universe is expanding and stops doing homework. “You’re here in Brooklyn,” she scolds him in the psychiatrist’s office. ”Brooklyn is not expanding!” Pushy, decisive Jewish mothers like her, who adopt the mentality of the shtetl – those small, crowded villages in Eastern Europe of an earlier era – entertain television viewers to this day in American popular sitcoms like Jerry’s mother in “Seinfeld,” Grace’s mother in “Will and Grace,” and the sitcom “Nanny” in which the protagonist’s mother never stops nagging her to get married, preferably to the wealthy boss whose children she cares for. Two archetypal Yiddish women’s roles come into play in that television comedy, with the mother Sylvia portrayed as the nosy, nagging “Yachna” and the grandmother Yetta coming across as the elderly, kindhearted and amusing “Yenta.”   The series “Big Bang Theory” also presents an amazingly stereotypical relationship between Wolowitz and his mother. “The Jewish mother in the series is so awful that only her voice appears. The verbal descriptions of her appearance are quite chilling,” says Dr. Shaham, adding that “there are also two Indian parents in this show who are no less of a nuisance, so the ethnic humor is varied.” Among the juicy Jewish characters on American television today are Joan Rivers, who managed before her death to justify Israel’s aerial attack on Gaza, and Chelsea Handler, host of an E! channel talk show. “Both are women with big mouths, vulgar humor, very Jewish and often use their Jewish identity to joke both about themselves and others,” Shaham says. “Although both their shows were cancelled recently – Rivers left for the other world and Handler left for Netflix – the fact is that both of their shows survived on the air for a very long time.”

The Jewish mother, as the agent of the ruling heterosexual arrangement, first and foremost craves to marry off her offspring, expecting her son to match up with a Jewish woman, and not – heaven forbid – a shiksa or a same-sex partner. While the Yiddishe mamme still appears in gay American cinema as the conservative, struggling to handle a son coming out of the closet such as in the cult classic from 2009 “Oy vey! My son is gay!” in which the mother laments to the psychiatrist: “What didn’t I do for my son? I nursed him until he was three years old! No, not just three months, three years. Are you going to tell me it is my fault my son is gay?!” On the other hand, the Jewish mother in American cinema has no problem becoming the gay man’s best friend, as long as it is not her own son, like in the unforgettable scene from 2008’s “Another Gay Sequel: Gays Gone Wild” when the gay men escape naked from the Florida resort, finding themselves at a tea party of a group of heavily madeup elderly Jewish grandmothers. “Oy vey!” the shocked women cry, rushing to ogle the young men’s loins. “Oy vey! Pop that tuchus! Shake that butt” they order before the chance meeting turns into an impromptu Chippendale’s performance to the strains of the classic “Hava Nagila.”

“The Yiddishe mamme is an apparently timeless archetype of the Ashkenazi Jewish Diaspora, of those who arrived in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, turning over a new leaf in our persecuted history,” Professor Zuckerman explains. “To part with this archetype would be like parting with everything embodied in Yiddishkeit – both as the continuation of the world of yesteryear and as a sort of antithesis to Zionism. The derision is therefore never malicious,” Zuckerman adds. “It is always entrenched in affection and self-directed irony – which was always the strongest dimension of Diaspora Jewish humor, the dimension sadly lost in our Israeli, Zionist culture.”

Why do you think Hollywood cinema continues to ignore the non-Ashkenazi Jewish mother even though there are at least a few hundred thousand Sephardic Jews in the United States today?

“As far as the Sephardic mother goes – there is nothing to be done. As far as US Jewry goes, her time has still not come. Sephardic Jews in the US are still a minority and still outside the Ashkenazi-JewishAmerican hegemony. What Philip Roth created in “Portnoy’s Complaint” or in the Coen brothers’ movie “A Serious Man” still has no parallel among Sephardic artists living in the United States. But who knows, maybe the time has come.”

Dr. Gilad Padva is a professor of cinema, media and popular culture